Why Scottish Witches Still Matter

Lawrence Normand, co-author of Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland, discusses the history of Witchcraft in the context of modern day Scotland. Whilst campaign groups such as The Witches of Scotland have gained momentum by receiving an apology from Nicola Sturgeon, there is a push toward implementing the teaching of this history into the Scottish curriculum.

The Witches of Scotland campaign group has had some initial success in winning an apology from Nicola Sturgeon for the thousands of people – overwhelmingly women – who were convicted and executed for witchcraft in Scotland between 1563, the passing of the Witchcraft Act, and its repeal in 1735. Their demands go further than an apology: they want to see official pardons, a programme of education in Scottish schools about this neglected but important part of Scotland’s history, research about witchcraft cases in local areas, and a memorial to the people who endured terrible suffering from witchcraft accusations. All this is welcome but this begs the question why witch prosecutions in Scotland – the most intense in Europe – has not become part of Scots’ knowledge of the past. There has been extensive academic study of Scottish witchcraft but the task for historians now is how to turn the knowledge we have into mainstream cultural understanding.

A number of obstacles lie in the way of this task, though. Firstly, people don’t know whether to believe that witches had magical powers or not, and some would quite like to believe they did. The memorial plaque by the Castlehill in Edinburgh, where executions took place, refers to ‘witches’ as if they were real. And near that plaque is a smart hotel called ‘The Witchery’, a name that just ignores the fact that this was a place of execution for those convicted of witchcraft. But it’s difficult for people at the moment to see how to connect references to witchcraft with historical people and events. Witchcraft exists mainly as scary images from children’s stories with brooms, cats, pointy hats and hook noses. One challenge for historians is to transform this kind of banality into stories that are actual. An accurate version of Scottish witch-hunting taught in schools it will involve disenchantment and even disappointment, for witchcraft is not a thing at all. Witchcraft is an imaginary crime, and there are no such things as witches. What will have to be taught is the more nebulous and uncomfortable knowledge of how conspiracy works and how it finds its victims. And this is a history that produces feelings of disquiet or even shame about the past, perhaps another reason why coming to terms with witchcraft in Scotland has been ignored.

A conspiracy theory like QAnon or the idea of witches plotting with the devil to use magic to harm others and destroy society may seem absurd and outlandish but they make perfect sense to those who believe them. Creating witches involves a matrix of social forces, including gender and religion, many of which are still alive and kicking in our minds and society. As a result we are still caught up to some extent in this web of forces even as we try to identify and understand them. The Witches of Scotland campaign acknowledges #MeToo as a motivation, and misogyny runs deep in witchcraft accusations. For sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Christians women were intrinsically inferior to men because Eve ate the apple in Eden, and this was a foundational belief in witchcraft accusations. However, as Nicola Sturgeon said in the Scottish Parliament in March 2022, fear and hostility to women still flourishes in Scotland even though it no longer depends on this Christian idea.

Scottish witch accusations and trials may also have been neglected because many of them involve brutal treatment, torture and sexual violence inflicted on suspects. In 1591 a Scottish pamphlet was published in England called News from Scotland that deliberately sensationalised the torture and violence involved, and dwelt in detail on the sexual abuse of suspects when their bodies were searched for the devil’s mark. It was meant to be titillating as well as disturbing, and that response to witchcraft accusations is still common today. When I was involved in a Channel 5 programme about the North Berwick witches (later justifiably pulled) the producer insisted on playing up the torture and sexual humiliation involved. Scottish witch investigations often served to arouse prurient responses in the male interrogators of the accused, and those feelings can be aroused now in those who are curious about witches. This can make it an uncomfortable subject to explore.

Campaigners have also approached the Church of Scotland for an apology for past injustices, and with good reason. The post-reformation protestant kirk abolished almost all religious magic from its practices but it insisted on retaining the devil as a free-wheeling spirit who might be encountered any time stalking the fields and streets of Scotland. And it was women whose weak natures made them more likely to fall for his offer of magical power, and to seal this pact with sexual intercourse. Men who went over to the devil got magical power without the sex. Ridiculous as all this seems to us now, stories of women and men pledging allegiance to the devil served the purpose of proving that society was constantly threatened by hellish powers. So-called witches who embraced the devil were representing opposition in its starkest form to the kirk’s drive to create a remodelled modern society of social purity and godly discipline. So it was so important for the kirk to imagine witches. By 1590 when the Scottish reformation was hitting its stride the kirk was able to join with the sovereign in the North Berwick witch hunt in promoting the belief that the devil was threatening the entire political order. At times like those, things were extremely dangerous for anyone swept up up in a witch hunt. It was the kirk that provided the intellectual underpinning (derived from European witchcraft theory) for the process of creating scapegoats in whom the things that were feared or prohibited were embodied. Kill the scapegoats and we kill the things we fear, until, of course, they come back to haunt us again. And yet it is striking even today how much talk of the devil still appears in the ordinary speech of Scots, and, presumably, our minds as well.

Image of a woodcut from News from Scotland showing, left, the devil imitating a kirk minister preaching from the pulpit to his followers – courtesy of Lambeth Palace Library.

If the campaigns for education in schools about Scottish witch hunting, and research into local witch trials are successful they will bring a real understanding of witch hunting into mainstream Scottish history. Then we will have to face the fact that these terrible events have helped make us what we are. And indeed we can’t stand outside the witch prosecutions of the past because some of the beliefs and feelings that brought them into being are still animating us today. But it’s better to have done with ignorance and misrepresentation even if what we have to recognise is that in witch hunts Scots made scapegoats of fellow Scots and treated them mercilessly in pursuit of a mere fantasy.

Co-Author Lawrence Normand

Lawrence Normand, co-author with Gareth Roberts, of Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James VI’s Demonology and the North Berwick Witches.

For more information on Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland, please visit our website.


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